It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.
― George Orwell, 1984
I have two friends and a NY Times celebrity "friend" (Michelle Goldberg) who are all reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light. I treated myself to a hardback edition for my birthday at Inquiring Minds, an independent bookstore in town where I'd had my "Say Nothing" reading. I went there on the Monday of the very week in March—March 9th—we went into lockdown. By Wednesday I was teaching my NYU class remotely and awkwardly. I didn't start the book until many weeks later. There was too much to do, too much to think about; I couldn't settle to fiction. And Mantel's devices and language are difficult; she's an innovative writer. I manage about five pages a day at the end of the day, usually on the deck in the fading light. I take up my chair, some water, my phone and my exhaustion, not only from a day of work, but from all the bits and pieces of life's challenges we must sift and organize every day during this pandemic, intensified again since the SUNY students are back on campus and many are walking around unmasked. I watch the vultures, eagles and hawks hunt in the orchard, set the Pandora to medieval music, and begin to read the odd words and unfamiliar syntax at a painstaking pace, savoring every phrase and sentence. The book is over 700 pages. Yesterday I hit Page 413. The Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell has organized a marriage for his son, Gregory. The woman in question thought she was going to marry Thomas Cromwell himself, a wishful misunderstanding. Several pages ensue of embarrassment and Cromwellian charm and manipulation. It's riveting. And though I am sure that an actor reading this sequence would bring it to life in his or her own way, I relish the voices surfacing in my imagination without the mediation of a professional reader. The connection between an author's words on the page and another writer reading these words is instantaneous. It enables us to reflect on how a book is made, and what choices the writer has made to tell the story.
I am usually a fast reader—I can even speed read—but have not always been a fast reader, much less a reader. I don't think my parents ever had time or inclination to read to me when I was a child. I do remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries to my baby sister and enjoying that experience, but it wasn't really until my first boyfriend started throwing books at me during the summer before I started college that I took the purpose of reading seriously. His name was Steve, and if he's out there somewhere, I thank him, both for the love affair and for the books. The glove compartment of his rickety Renault was overflowing with paperbacks. The usual conversation between teens in love, whatever that might be, didn't interest him, and it didn't interest me. His parents were chicken farmers—educated, political chicken farmers. I didn't get them then; I do now. They were blacklisted and were hiding out in Tom's River, NJ. Alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, the books in the glove compartment had titles I'd never heard of before, such as The Ugly American, a political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. That book led me to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and beyond. That is what books do: they lead us from one subject to another, from one thinker to another. Knowledge accrues, curiosity is stimulated, our world widens.
Recently, a high school senior told me that he doesn't read very much, and he doesn't listen to audio books, either. Even some of my NYU students confess that they only read articles online; they rarely hold a book in their hands. I am troubled by the dearth of knowledge implied in this revelation, especially at a moment in our history when propaganda rather than fact and considered opinion floods our media. A functioning democracy requires an educated, deep-thinking population, as well as educators who demand commitment and rigor in the classroom, whether it is virtual or real.